SI Vault
Vasily Aksyonov
April 23, 1973
The author is considered one of the finest and most subtle short-story writers to emerge during the thaw in Soviet literature that prevailed for roughly a decade following the death of Stalin in 1953. His back-ground, typical of his generation of Soviet intellectuals, bears heavily upon the content of his work. His parents were arrested during the devastating purges of the mid-1930s, and at the age of four he was placed in one of the notorious Soviet "Homes for Children of the Enemies of the People." His mother, the Jewish writer Eugenia Ginzburg, survived 18 years of prison, concentration camp and exile to write a chilling memoir, "Journey info the Whirlwind," which, like much of her sons current work, has been banned in the Soviet Union. Chess recently has been classified as a sport, but in this surrealistic story, now translated into English, Aksyonov uses a chess game to mirror a whole lifetime and its grim associations. His contest has no winner.
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April 23, 1973

The Grand Master

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The exuberant summer celebrations on square KR8 were filling the Grand Master's heart with joy but, at the same time, he was worried. He felt that there would soon be an accumulation of outwardly logical but inwardly absurd forces in the center of the board, that he would hear again the cacophony and there would be the smell of cheap disinfectant, as in those horrible faraway halls in the left wing of the building.

"One thing I'd like to know," G.O. suddenly said. "Why is it that all top chess players happen to be Jewish?"

"All?" the Grand Master said. "Take me, for instance, I'm not Jewish."

"Is that so?" G.O. said with surprise. "But please don't imagine I meant anything. I just said it, like that. I have absolutely no prejudice in these matters. I was just curious."

"And you, for instance," the Grand Master said, "you're not Jewish either, are you?"

"Ah, but I'm nowhere near in that league," G.O. said, and again plunged into his secret plans.

If I move here, he'll move there, G.O. thought; if I take this piece, he'll take the one over there in a couple of moves; then I'll counter like this, and he'll answer in that way.... But anyway, what's the difference? In the end I'll break him, finish him off. I don't care whether he's a grand master, or a ringmaster, or what—I've got more guts than he has. Besides, I suspect that all their championships and tournaments are fixed. Whatever he does, I'll crush him, even if it means giving him a bloody nose.

"Yes, of course, in that exchange I lost in quality," G.O. told the Grand Master. "But never mind, there's still plenty of daylight left for me."

He started his attack through the center and, as the Grand Master expected, the center immediately became a field of senseless and terrifying activities. No love here, no tender meeting, no hope, no warm greeting, no life. It was feverish chills, and again yellow snow, the hardships that followed the war, itching all over the body. The black queen was cawing in the center, cawing like an enamored crow, crow's love, and nearby a neighbor was scratching a tin bowl with a knife. Nothing could prove so finally the senselessness of life as this position in the center of the chessboard. It was time to finish this game.

No, the Grand Master thought, there must still be something beyond this.... He put on a tape of Bach's piano concertos to calm his heart with the pure sounds, smooth like the splashing of waves. He stepped out of the summer-house and walked toward the sea. Pines rustled overhead and underfoot the slippery needles felt resilient.

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